Our series on aging now takes a look at the natural aspect of it, which is often used as justification to defend it's presence and particularly its preservation now that it seems all too probable that we will be able to get rid of it.
Hello everyone, old or soon to be, Nicolas here. Still on our theme of death and aging, and I encourage you to listen to the first two episodes if you haven’t yet done so, today we’re going to scrutinize a rather common objection to the eradication of aging in Man.
Well, I say Man but of course I do mean to include you Ladies as well.. Man obviously represents mankind, both men and women. “Man” is both usual and shorter so I’ll stick to that, but I am of course very much thinking of you as well.
So, when speaking of the possibility of changing our biology to slow down, prevent or even reverse the aging process, often one of the first objections is the “natural” aspect of aging. “Aging it’s nature, that’s what it is to be human”.. well those kinds of comments.
And I am not trying to deny it. It’s true, Man is an aging animal.. and he’s always been so. But do you know what Man also has in common with other animals? He becomes sick, he is sometimes malformed, he is too hot, he is too cold, he breaks his bones and a host of other nice things like that.
Yet we’re not here telling sick people “oh sorry but antibiotics are not natural” or telling conjoined twins “ok it isn’t convenient sharing the same pants but we’re not going to separate you with a scalpel”. We don’t deny ourselves clothing when not hairy enough and we aren’t choosing to be here sweating like a pig because air conditioning isn’t as natural as skin glands. And of course we could encourage people to hop on one leg rather than climb into a wheelchair.
No I believe it’s obvious enough that nobody really takes the natural or non natural aspect into consideration before deciding whether or not something is beneficial. Those who refuse the idea of eradicating aging do so for other reasons and invoke the unnatural aspect to try and provoke some kind of emotional response which is in fact grounded in not much at all.
We are all already trying to live longer and better, no matter the biological destiny nature had in mind for us. Our genes may predispose us to diabetes but we do not refuse the insulin shot. We all happily spend fortunes to prolong for a few months or years our fight against cancer. We want more life and we systematically act like it, all the while shouting the contrary from the top of our lungs. “I do not wish to go against nature”, says the septuagenarian while taking his tenth pill of the morning.
But this hypocrisy I understand it well. It’s logical. It is a defense mechanism actually. It’s quite “natural”. We don’t want to be disappointed and so when unsure we prefer pretending that the result isn’t so important. The tumor may kill us despite the chemio so it is less traumatizing if we manage to convince ourselves that it isn’t such a bad thing after all. This way we can only win. More or less.
Except that clearly there is one option which is rather more and the other rather less. And this option which we all prefer deep down, it’s life. So trying to reassure, to calm oneself when we have no choice is understandable, wise even. Telling oneself that it is natural, that it is life.. all that, why not if it may avoid useless trauma in the face of the inevitable.. but when it is possible to fight and win, giving up is a mistake. A costly mistake when we are on the verge of conquering aging and people drag their feet scared to be disappointed.
And it is fear of being disappointed, because as soon as we are hopeful.. such as with anti-wrinkle creams, antibiotics or quadruple bypass surgery.. we get going, we rush in.. and then natural or not that no longer matters.. any method is on the table to live longer and in better health.
Of course one could say that eliminating aging is not the same. It’s not like treating a disease or alleviating some suffering or just adding a few more years. It’s not the same.. except that yes it’s rather quite the same. In taking this logic to the end there is no obvious place to stop. If we are able to unblock all arteries, remove all wrinkles, clean up all brains, remove all senescent cells, eradicate all tumors.. well repair everything that breaks and maintain the beast in shape as if it were 20 years old.. in the end it’s precisely the same as preventing aging. And so the question will arise of when to stop repairing. Or what not to repair.
And if anti-wrinkle creams are not natural but good.. if coronary bypasses are not natural but good.. it’s hard to see what other unnatural interventions or reparations would not be good and why. And if we have no more reason to stop here than there, well we don’t stop and the argument about stopping aging not being good because not natural.. clearly falls flat. Either we approve those new anti-aging treatments tomorrow or we refuse the bypass surgery today.
Ok we could also say that roughly 100 years is the natural limit that works well for humanity. Except that we saw in the previous episode that no. The evolutionary reasons which implied that biologically speaking we had to sacrifice individuals to save the species, are no longer relevant. The aging process naturally arose to serve a need. This need is now obsolete since our evolution is almost entirely in our hands. This mechanism now has as much utility as a vestigial limb.. which would indeed naturally disappear over time.. but thankfully we are going to speed things up.
There may be other reasons for the evolution of an aging mechanism. Those are indeed often the subject of other common objections. Men have a psychological need for an end, a sense of urgency to motivate their actions, some population regulation mechanism and so on. We will go through all those objections one at a time in upcoming episodes so I won’t go deep into it here. From a personal standpoint at least, we are all rather hypocritical and it’s about time we realized it.
The natural side, humanity has long been trying to run away from any chance it got. Ever since Man became Man, ever since he understood that sharper things than nails could be achieved banging rocks against each other, he has always wanted to get rid of his natural handicaps by playing on his main strength, also perfectly natural, his inventiveness. And precisely, we have here an important point. Inventiveness is natural. So is the survival instinct. Put the two together and we have biological engineering and the end of obligatory aging. Or rather the end of preprogrammed rot.
Either we consider this step as natural and good. Or we consider it as artificial, but desirable just as well as other advances since we got down from the trees. Or I extend an invitation to those who love what is natural because it is natural to push their reasoning to its conclusion and go live in the nearest cave. No need to move anything there, all of it is artificial.
Speaking of which, “natural” is not synonymous with “good”. The plague is natural too. Parasites which eat their hosts from the inside. Mutations making people blind, oversensitive to light or pain. “Natural” catastrophes (well it’s in the name already). And to that list I would indeed add aging, the sacrifice of trillions of living beings who simultaneously have an irrepressible will to live and see themselves just as irrepressibly die slowly. Isn’t nature beautiful? I am rather happy it made us smart enough to allow us to sort the good from the bad in its haphazardly and indifferently put together masterpiece.
Because in truth lovers of the natural make the mistake of forgetting about its innumerable horrors and worshipping nature for its few lucky successes. Well, I’m not here to put nature on trial, although I can hardly resist the urge and I feel this is bound to happen soon, but for now I only wish to show that natural and virtuous are too entirely decoupled notions. They have nothing to do with one another.
Because in truth the good can be distinguished from the bad by its capacity to answer our calls, to facilitate or hinder our endeavors to reach our goals. There’s rocks on Mars. Is it good or bad? It is of course, for us earthlings, neither. They are there naturally. But before being able to judge the situation one needs to have a basis for judging. If we were on Mars and we had a need for raw construction material then yes, why not say that this natural abundance of rocks is a good thing. But for now we don’t care. Conversely if we wanted to stake down our pressurized tent in the same soil, we would certainly be damning the same rocks. They would in this case be a bad thing.
Natural does not mean good, natural does not mean bad. It merely means that it happened without Man’s direction. By the way this is not the only abuse of language. When we say that “it’s natural to disappear, to have some limited time and leave room for other generations” we again have an abuse of language here. What we really mean by that, what we’re really saying, is that seeing people disappear is common, habitual, normal.
Actually I think that the natural/artificial dichotomy in fact has little to do with nature and Man in our case. It’s a smokescreen to avoid revealing the real reason. A reason which is more about cognitive biases than thought. That is to say more about blind and instinctive fear rather than reason and evidence. And the real axis which we are trying, probably unconsciously, to hide, is that of change versus the familiar. Change which simultaneously excites us and scares us all.
We are used to seeing people die and it’s hard to imagine what the world would look like if they no longer aged, if there were only biologically young people. This is probably quite different from ours we know that.. but how exactly, that we are quite unable to say, and it’s frightening. And when we don’t know, we have a tendency to reject change instinctively.
And why not. After all it’s easy to picture overpopulation catastrophes or some profound boredom and a loss of meaning for life itself. But precisely, the work of the philosopher who is asleep in each of us, is to see past this fear and to think to find out if it is grounded in truth and to contrast it with the positive developments to decide if in the end it may not be worth changing the status quo after all.
And I believe that indeed, abolishing natural aging is even more desirable than abolishing the natural plague.
We have just seen that it is hypocritical to on the one hand praise the natural cycle of aging while on the other doing everything in practice to slow it down. We have also seen that it is clearly natural for Man to want to combat what he doesn’t like in nature anyway, and that actually good and bad, or what is desirable and what is not, are two notions that have nothing to do with natural and artificial. Refusing to stop biological aging in Man under the pretext that it wouldn’t be a natural pursuit is not only false, but it makes no sense regardless.
So in the upcoming episodes we will keep analyzing the fears coming from the prospects of putting the human aging process under control. Until then thank you for listening to today’s episode, do not hesitate to subscribe to the podcast or to share it. See you soon.
Published 2016-06-21. (aging, life extension, nature)